My Exam Results Postmortem.
Don’t you just love exam results days? I always have….all the anticipation, the nerves, the agonising wait and then, finally….the big reveal. Jubilation and despair and everything in between….wrapping up years of endeavour in one big moment. It’s an emotional field day.
When that email arrives from the Exams Officer carrying the thousands of mini verdicts on students’ achievements, the first thing I do is to look at the overall headline. As Head, this where I brace myself…..it’s either going to be something to celebrate or a disappointment…there’s not much in between. The details come later but for now I just want to know which mode to be in. Buzzing and celebratory or sober and reflective.
Next, I dive into the Physics column. Rightly or wrongly, as a teaching Headteacher, my own students’ results matter more to me than any others… This is a big moment. I’ve always felt that my students’ results are also mine. If they’ve done well, I feel fully justified in basking in the glory. But, as I scan down the list, every dropped grade is a knife through the heart. I feel responsible….my performance is laced into every grade…. I’m not preaching here; this is simply how I have always felt about it. I know many teachers who feel the same way.
So, rather than talk in general terms, let me share how it went this year. I had two exam classes…one A Level, shared with a colleague and one GCSE class I taught myself for two years.
Y13 A Level Physics Class
I loved teaching this class and I felt very positive going into the exams that we’d put things in place for a strong set of results. However, the grades didn’t match the potential. I was disappointed: 5As, 9Bs, 3Cs and an E from a class where at least 12 could have gained an A and the E doesn’t do justice to the student’s ability at all.
Now, straight away I need to be careful. I have no intention of doing my students down; they are all very talented young people and, thankfully, they all have secured university places or have a concrete plan of action for their next career steps. A B is an excellent A Level grade that leads to great university courses. But, collectively, the grades fell short of what I’d hoped for and what I expected – that’s the point. There was the potential for them to be much better. Initially I felt pretty gutted. For them and, yes, for me! Breaking this down, the grades fall into a few categories:
Expected grades: The five As, a couple of Bs and Cs were expected. No surprise. Great. Phew!
Step-Up Disappointments: Students who were knocking on the door of an A or B and who I felt would deliver that step-up in the final exams. However, they were not solidly in the bag at any point… I just hoped and expected.
Step-Down Disappointments: Students who routinely secured A or B grade work throughout the course but who, against all expectations, dropped down in the final modules.
So, with more than the expected number of disappointments, I went into postmortem mode. I have had a meeting with my colleague who shared the class with me and we’ve considered all the variables:
1. Was it the exams? We felt the papers were fair and students’ immediate feedback had been reasonably positive. We felt we’d covered all the material and students should have had a good chance of doing well – in theory. We’ve looked at the component breakdown to see if there is a pattern – but so far there isn’t a strong one. Students in all groups did broadly as well in each component…so that’s a bit baffling. It would be a lot easier if one paper had been a disaster – but that wasn’t the case. The next step is to interrogate the data question by question, using the OCR website, to see if particular questions were poorly answered… although initial investigations haven’t shown us anything obvious, we’ll look further.
2. Was it the students? Did they just underperform? If so, what factors might have contributed? Could or should we have spotted anything that we didn’t Could we have offered more support? Should we have expected more from them in terms of effort and precision, running up to the exams? How did their Physics grades compare with their others? Here there is a mixed picture. Without getting into a technical residuals analysis, it is clear that the results are not massively worse for the group in Physics than elsewhere – but they are certainly slightly lower. Case by case, some outcomes are hugely disappointing, some are actually better than we’d hoped. I still feel proud of them because they were enthusiastic and hard-working…. I don’t see the exam results as a full reflection of their talents. That’s the frustrating thing.
3. Was it the teaching? Was it us? Did we miss things out or rush through certain topics? Did we teach certain topics as well as we could? It’s the first time I taught the course…and I know for sure that I will do it better next time. Did we give enough sharply focused feedback on exam questions? My feeling is that this is an area I could have done better in for sure. Are we as in tune with students’ real levels of understanding in each topic area as we might be… or do we need to do more formalised formative assessment to determine this throughout the course? I know we can do more here.
4. Is it the course? Do we provide enough guidance? Do our materials allow students to know exactly what they need to know for the exam? Is there anything about this particular syllabus that is a fundamental barrier to success? It suits some students but can be rather woolly and opaque for others…it’s a big decision to change, without any certainty that students would do better. We’ll explore but not rush into anything.
We’ve asked all these questions. We’ve also considered whether we simply expected too much? Not every straight A student at GCSE will get an A at A level..far from it. Perhaps we have projected our optimism and data-driven expectations onto students for whom a B was always more realistic than an A. I don’t like to think that way…it doesn’t sit well, but there may be some truth in it. Or it could be an excuse.
So.. there you go. My A level postmortem is rather inconclusive. The process of asking the questions is vital as part of my professional learning, not least because I am teaching another Y13 class the same material this coming year. Most of all, it matters because if you feel students deserved better, then you owe it to them to work out how things might have been different.
Y11 IGCSE Physics Class
After the hand-wringing over A levels, my GCSE results have just been pure joy: From 22 students, 19 gained an A*, two gained an A and one gained a B. The B was always on the cards so these results are far in excess of anything I’d imagined. To put this in context, for the school as a whole, 45% of grades were A* and 84% A or A* – these are our second highest figures. So, I’d expect similar outcomes…but for so many to have gained A*s is fabulous.
Of course, I could just sit around congratulating myself… but the postmortem is still important. Is this a reproducible result? What factors influenced the success?
Importantly for me, this is the class that has pioneered the co-construction approach that I have written about and spoken about at numerous CPD events and TeachMeets. All students contributed to planning the course, to teaching lessons, marking work, conducting demonstrations and organising practical work. They produced revision materials and even took a cover lesson one day when I was absent.
I always said that my hopes were for the class to do as well as any other, having engaged in sharing the planning and teaching of the course themselves. Well, I am delighted that we have accomplished that goal. Of course I cannot say that they did well because of the co-construction approach… but I can be certain that it didn’t do any harm. Along the way, they have learned some additional skills and gained confidence in ways that can’t be measured.
Here’s a crucial reference point: The students gained identical marks in their Chemistry IGCSE, grade for grade, student for student, taught by other teachers. So, undoubtedly the general disposition and ability of the class was exceptional. Having spoken to some students about this, they feel that the co-construction gave them confidence and made them work for each other, providing materials and so on, in ways that may have influenced them more widely. That can’t be proven of course; I’m not making any grand claims. However, as I always said, if the learning process can be this engaging and rewarding, AND we get great exam results… that’s all the evidence I need to know that it’s a good way to teach and to learn. In due course I will conduct a student survey to gain their perspective on the whole process.
Another important factor is that this was a linear IGCSE exam with terminal exams. For my students, it works well to gear up for a final push, learning all the content at once having had two years to study it. I don’t think they would have done as well with a series of modules. Also, the course has plenty of maths in it and they like that too. So, this style of exam plays to their strengths. I don’t call that easy…because the questions are more rigorous and demanding than the course we used before. But the style of assessment works for them, without question.
So,.. that’s the postmortem done. Time to look ahead. I’ll be teaching Year 9 this year, in a co-construction style, and I have a Year 13 class that is going to get a sharper, more focused experience with a lot more feedback from me. Let’s see what happens this time.